They didn’t see ‘her wonderful, artistic, highly individualistic and rebellious self’, Bernardine Evaristo writes, in her highly praised book Girl, Woman, Other about the story’s heroine, Amma, who works at a Burger Bar in Piccadilly Circus to make extra money. Amma, like the majority of female characters in Evaristo’s novel, is an LGBTQ woman of colour and is therefore confronted with racism and questions about equality, feminism and patriarchy. Though she’s a fictional character, she stands for millions of women around the globe who are still struggling to be seen and heard in a male-dominated world.
It’s women’s voices like these that are given a platform on International Women’s Day (IWD), which honours girls and women from all social and cultural backgrounds. The day has been celebrated annually since 1909, originally at the end of February, and, since 1917, on 8 March. The UN announced the theme of this year’s IWD as ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world’. Achieving equality, or even just maintaining the status quo, seems to be at-risk during the pandemic, but why is this so?
One simple answer is money. Or, more concretely, the gender–pay gap. Although the UK passed the Equal Pay Act more than 50 years, making it illegal to pay women less than men, the pay gap persists. If kindergartens and schools are closed one parent must stay at home to take care of the children. This task most often falls to the women who earn less money. Even if women are allowed to work remotely doing so might not be beneficial to them as then they often end up trying to work and take care of their children simultaneously. Contrastingly, the majority of men working from home are allowed to focus solely on their paid work. According to the Harvard Business Review, professional women with children are less likely to work unpaid extra hours because of the reason mentioned above, in contrast to professional men, regardless of whether or not they have children. In companies that value flexibility and expect employees to work overtime, these women get stuck in the lower levels of management instead of being promoted to senior roles, if they are lucky enough to keep their jobs at all. McKinsey recently published a report that showed that 54% of women worldwide are at risk to lose their job due to the pandemic as their jobs are 1.8 times more vulnerable to the crisis than men’s jobs are.
These statistics are especially disappointing because women’s progress in the workplace in recent years has been really encouraging. If we take a look at the publishing sector (the industry that makes novels like Evaristo’s available to us), we can see that the number of women has continuously risen over time, and it reached 69% in 2019. Moreover, 55% of women in publishing hold executive leadership and senior management roles. In 2020, however, the numbers declined by 5%. This might be a short-term fluctuation, but it may also indicate a trend for the years to come. Nevertheless, these numbers show that equality in the workplace is achievable. Change is possible, isn’t it?
The truth is that only 13% of women in those publishing industry leadership roles are women of colour, yet they are also likely to be the ones who pave the way for new authors and fresh (female) voices. Until those voices are heard we can’t say we are equal as a society and 8 March will remain a necessary day for raising awareness and helping us keep in mind that there is still much work to be done.
So, what can you do on this year’s International Women’s Day?
Maybe you could make yourself a cup of tea, sit down with Evaristo’s book, take some time to meet Amma, Yazz and LaTisha, and get inspired by those female voices.